Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Penguins, again.

Whenever I'm talking to anyone back in the states and mention that I'm in Antarctica, the first question is usual something about polar bears. The second question, inevitably, is along the lines of "Do you have penguins there?"

During the winter, "Maybe" was the best answer I could give. We saw some, but they were fairly few and far between. But now, spring is here, and the silly creatures are coming back. In force. It would be fair to say that we're almost over-run with penguins.

In less then three weeks, we've gone from being exited if we saw five, to being almost indifferent to them. When we're out boating, it's a case of "Oh, yeah, there's a few hundred penguins over there. Meh."

One of the problems with penguins, though, is that they've lived for a long time in an environment with relatively few sea-based predators, and almost no land-based ones. To them, being on land is their safe zone. It doesn't seem to occur to them to be afraid of anything on land. They're a bit skittish, as most birds are, but they seem to regard humans and our detritus as oddities, and maybe even slight curiosities.

That is to say, they wander around our station like they own the place.

And according to the ACA (Antarctic Conservation Act), they do.

So they wander around station at will, sliding down rocks and poking at anything that tweaks their interest.

I wonder if he thought he was going to fix the cables or something?  Like most animals, they explore the world and everything around them with their mouth, not having hands.  So while it does look funny, them pecking at something is just their way of trying to figure out what it is, and  if they can eat it.

When they start wandering around the station's road (we only have one.  If you could call it a road) and pier, inevitably there's going to be a few of us out there taking pictures of them.  And they seem to view us with the same sort of bemusement that we view them with.  By official rule, we have to stay at least 15 feet away from them, unless they approach us.  In which case, as long as we don't antagonize or provoke them, we don't have to actively try and get out of their way.

And that means that they get absurdly close to us.  And I'm the idiot sitting there with a long telephoto lens when these guys are just a few feet away.

These are Gentoo penguins, significantly smaller then the Emperor or King penguins that live farther south, and in the areas around McMurdo. 

Penguins have recently been pretty popular in the last few years in pop culture.  March of the Penguins, Happy Feet being the big two penguin-focused movies.  But of all the various portrayals of penguins in the media, I'd have to say that the penguins in "Madagascar" are probably the closest to reality.  Not that penguins are actually para-military, but that they're just a little bit psychotic, and it seems like they're always scheming or planning something.  They'll be standing around looking bored, and then all of the sudden they'll start squawking loudly and running around, and all head off in one seemingly random direction, then abruptly stopping again to stand around and poop.

They really are that goofy.  They look absolutely ridiculous waddling around, they frequently fall flat onto their faces, either on accident or just so they can toboggan along on their belly.  They're not like cats, where they do something incredibly silly, then immediately stand up and shrug it off and pretend it never happened.  

No, they seem to be perfectly content being really strange little creatures.